Thursday, July 10, 2014

"Well, if it's a crime to love one's country then I'm guilty..."

In reading news stories, I sometimes encounter stories where a bad thing happened, someone is charged with a crime, but (at least from the facts that are presented) the guilt of that person is far from clear.  Recent examples include the Georgia father whose son died after being left in a hot car all day (and the mother) and the teenage companion of a violent man who killed a police officer before being killed himself.  (Also once Josh Powell, but at this point he's clearly guilty of murdering his children regardless of what happened to his wife.)

I could spend some time discussing why these people may not be guilty of the crimes that they're charged with (or may soon be charged with), but that's not really my point.  My point is to criticize the common reaction that people have to these stories.  They look at the situations that these people were in and say, "I would never do that.  Therefore these people are clearly guilty."  People who say this are wrong.  In particular, the first part of that statement is wrong.

When I read those stories, I don't see the actions of monsters.  I see people who made little mistakes that got out of hand and led to huge consequences (or people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time).  As a less controversial example, let me refer to a somewhat older case.

In 2002, a Springville family had an adopted daughter who, because of her background prior to adoption, was stealing things like food.  The family had sought the advice of a psychologist who suggested that when this daughter steals something they give her lots of it so that she could learn that she doesn't need to steal.  Then, one day she stole a drink, so they had her drink a lot of water.

The daughter died, and the parents were tried with murder.  In writing the last paragraph, the whole explanation felt rather lame, and jurors agreed, finding the mother guilty of murder (and acquitting the father so as to not leave their other children effectively orphans).  But the problem with that analysis is that we're looking at it with hindsight.  These were well-meaning, generally good people who had opened their home to a difficult child and were trying to help her overcome the challenges of her childhood.  While the parents had definitely taken the actions that led to the girl's death, the death was by many accounts an accident.  These aren't hardened criminals, they're people who made a mistake that had terrible consequences.

This is what people don't realize about crime.  They think, "I'm not a criminal," but they don't realize that a) they commit crimes every day (speeding, anyone?) and b) they're just one unfortunate accident away from looking just like Mark Hacking (a man who was all kinds of terrible, capping it off by killing his wife and disposing of her in a dumpster).

So, the next time you see someone who accidentally left their child in a car (if you've ever left something like a drink on top of your car, then you too could have left a child in the car), even if they've recently read some puzzling things on the internet (think of the story that your browsing history from the last week would tell) and spent the day sexting their underage girlfriends (seriously, this guy hit the jackpot in terms of having dirt for police to dig up), consider that maybe this is just a terrible accident buried under a lot of unfortunate coincidences.

And the next time you read about someone who looks like they deserve whatever the law can throw at them, take a moment and be grateful that you didn't get accused of a terrible crime today.

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